The real festival stars

Now that the circus act has left Toronto, our critic picks the films that are bound for glory
Actor/Producer Brad Pitt (L) and Actress Angelina Jolie arrive at the "Moneyball" Premiere at Roy Thomson Hall during the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival on September 9, 2011 in Toronto, Canada.
The real festival stars
George Pimentel/WireImage/Getty Images; Courtesy of TIFF

It was celebrity gridlock. Each year the juggernaut of the Toronto International Film Festival seems bigger than ever, but with its 36th edition (Sept. 8-18), it turned a corner. Anchored by its grand new headquarters, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the festival finally moved fully downtown. As black SUV limos lined the streets, disgorging stars into the red-carpet blaze of cameras, the city’s entertainment district turned into a glass-and-concrete answer to Cannes—with some surreal moments worthy of Fellini.

Counter-spinning tabloid gossip, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie wrapped their arms around each other in a regal show of marital bliss at the premiere of Moneyball—for which Pitt earned up to $15 million as a hero who reinvents baseball by casting low-rent players instead of high-priced stars. Fresh from her hydrangea-bashing faux pas with a fan in Venice, Madonna ran a gauntlet of critical scorn for W.E., her risible take on Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII, then denied reports that her goons told festival volunteers to avert their eyes when the Queen Mother of Pop came into view. Impresario Garth Drabinsky, on the eve of going to prison for fraud, took a hubris-heavy perp walk down the red carpet with Christopher Plummer for the premiere of Barrymore. Bono introduced a U2 documentary by comparing songwriting to sausage-making. And Neil Young did a double take when a grey-haired lady introduced herself at the premiere of his concert film—he confessed he had a crush on her in the fourth grade.

Now that the stardust has settled, and the circus has left town, all that remains of the festival are the movies. Some of them we’ll still be talking about in February. Each year TIFF launches the fall season of Oscar-pedigree films, and as the buzz merchants tried to sniff out the next King’s Speech or Slumdog Millionaire from 268 feature titles, there was no obvious champ. But some clear contenders stood out. It was above all a festival of stellar male performances—Clooney, Pitt, Gosling, Fassbender, Harrelson—even if the audience prize went to Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now?, a feel-good fable of female liberation from Lebanon.

Most of the films winning acclaim at TIFF were twisted tales of beautiful losers. Spanning the zeitgeist, their themes ranged from professional sports to professional sex, from fly-fishing to fatherhood. Perhaps the most talked-about was Steve McQueen’s Shame, a bleak and torrid odyssey of a cold-blooded sex addict, portrayed with full-frontal bravado by the prodigiously talented, and endowed, Michael Fassbender. Flipping from addict to analyst, Fassbender also popped up in A Dangerous Method, as a mild-mannered Carl Jung, who graduates from healing a barking-mad Russian patient (Keira Knightley) to paddling her bare bottom in an adulterous affair. Despite that kinky interlude, given that it’s directed by David Cronenberg, the most shocking thing about this elegant biopic is that it’s not shocking. Scripted by Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons), it unfolds as a loquacious essay on the origins of psychoanalysis—enlivened by Viggo Mortensen, who steals every scene as Sigmund Freud, and gets more mileage out of a cigar than anyone since Groucho Marx.

The festival program was swimming with sex and nudity. I lost count of masturbation scenes. Penises abounded. And prostitution was sympathetically portrayed in films ranging from Elles—starring Juliette Binoche as a married journalist who comes to envy the student hookers she interviews—to 360, in which Jude Law has a nervous date with a call girl. And sex with an intern tips the shrewd intrigue of The Ides of March, in which George Clooney directs himself as a Democrat campaigning for the White House. That film, however, belongs to Ryan Gosling, who rivalled Fassbender with his own double bill of brains and brawn, as the genius press secretary in Ides and the dead-cool hero of Drive.

The politician played by Clooney in Ides is close to the actor’s own smooth public persona. He gives a more momentous performance in The Descendants, the best of a string of movies about losers trying to repatriate fatherhood. Set in Hawaii, it’s an umbrella cocktail of comedy and drama directed by Alexander Payne, who does for the Hawaiian landscape what he did for wine in Sideways. Clooney is cast against type as a shambling, ineffectual father who tries to track down his unfaithful wife’s dirtbag boyfriend while she lies in a coma. Meanwhile, he’s about to sell a piece of island paradise that’s been in his family for generations. Tears of laughter and tragedy merge in a wildly unpredictable narrative that’s driven home by an insolent teenage daughter who prods Dad into taking charge.

These days it seems the most vital accessory for a serious actor is an unruly child. Woody Harrelson won raves for his scorching performance as a corrupt cop patrolling the underbelly of Los Angeles in Rampart. As he binges on sex, drugs and brutality, the drama’s linchpin is a rebellious teenage daughter. A feral young girl helps Willem Dafoe locate his soul as he stalks the Tasmanian tiger in The Hunter. And Café de flore, a brilliant drama from Quebec writer-director Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y.), toggles between two stories of overwhelmed parents: a single mother in ’60s Paris (an incendiary Vanessa Paradis) struggles to raise a Down’s syndrome boy, while a divorced DJ in present-day Montreal tries to rein in a daughter who’s in open revolt against his new girlfriend.

In Moneyball, as Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, Brad Pitt is a single father who revolutionizes baseball, but whose life coach is his precocious daughter. Directed by Capote’s Bennett Miller, Moneyball is better than anyone could expect. And after too many character roles, Pitt finally gets to shine as the movie star he was born to be, with the wit and swagger of a latter-day Robert Redford. But what makes the movie click is his hilarious odd-couple chemistry with Jonah Hill, as a nerdy economist who attacks baseball like a blackjack player counting cards.

Sports was as ubiquitous as sex at TIFF, from Salmon Fishing in the Yemen—a romcom wrapped around a crackpot plan to bring fly-fishing to the desert—to three tales of underdog hockey heroes. Canadian cinema has a losing record trying to tap the box-office potential of our national game—Score: A Hockey Musical, which opened TIFF last year, was a disaster. Breakaway, a corny comedy about a Sikh hockey team, dishes up a multicultural formula of Bollywood romance, hip hop, and high-shticking. It doesn’t aim high, but with Rob Lowe cruelly typecast as the conceited coach, and screenwriter Vinay Virmani as the charming lead, it somehow finds the net. Goon, from Fubar director Michael Dowse, is more potent stuff, the tale of a sweetly idiotic, painfully polite bouncer who gets recruited as an enforcer for a minor-league team. With Jay Baruchel rooting from the sidelines, it’s lethally funny, but Goon’s heroic embrace of the game’s blood lust makes one wince in light of the recent deaths of former NHL strongmen. The Last Gladiators, Alex Gibney’s documentary about ex-Canadiens enforcer Chris Nilan, suffers from a similar problem—of being too timely, yet not timely enough.

Competing for the limelight at TIFF is a contact sport in its own right. And while Hollywood stars dominate the media, the festival also serves as a gateway for world cinema—Iran’s A Separation was voted second most popular film—and an outlet mall for homegrown fare, with a whacking total of 34 Canadian features this year, including co-productions. None was more keenly anticipated than Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, starring Michelle Williams as a woman torn between a comfy marriage to Seth Rogen and the dreamboat next door. Polley’s sophomore feature is as bold and flamboyant as her Oscar-nominated debut, Away From Her, was restrained and sombre. But TIFF’s prize for best Canadian feature went to Philippe Falardeau’s quiet gem, Monsieur Lazhar, a note-perfect drama about an Algerian refugee teaching elementary school in Montreal.

Meanwhile, Edwin Boyd won the award for best Canadian feature debut with its hell-bent saga of a real-life Canadian outlaw (Scott Speedman) who became a folk hero in postwar Toronto—robbing banks after failing to make it as an actor. Director Nathan Morlando, who tracked down Boyd in 1995, says the idea came from studying existential philosophy at the University of Toronto—“I was interested in the anti-hero.” Boyd, who wore theatrical makeup when robbing banks, was inspired by film noir and James Cagney.

In the end, even in the cold Canadian shadows of the TIFF industrial complex, all roads lead back to Hollywood.